Kernerman Dictionary News • Number 14 • July 2005
What does it take to write a new English etymological dictionary today?
English etymological lexicography had two peaks: the 4th edition of Skeat’s dictionary (Skeat 1910) and etymological comments in those fascicles of the OED that James A. H. Murray and Henry Bradley edited. Of the other authors, Ernest Weekley (1921) deserves a mention, though his forte was borrowings from Old French and putative reflexes of proper names. The rest is based on Skeat and the OED. Weekley’s failure is typical: it is not particularly difficult to offer a new treatment of several hundred words, but a full-scale etymological dictionary requires a superhuman effort, for who can delve into and re-evaluate the history of the entire vocabulary of English? All the post-Weekley dictionaries are derivative: published only to be sold, they recycle the same hypotheses and add nothing to what can be found elsewhere. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology [ODEE] (1965; numerous reprints) presents the material from the OED in a condensed form but shows almost no traces of original research. As a result, contemporary English etymological dictionaries are at the level reached a hundred years ago; they cannot even be compared with the best samples of Sanskrit, Classical Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Gothic, German, Dutch, Old Icelandic, Lithuanian, and Slavic lexicography. Students of Ossetic and Sorbian [sic] are better off in this respect than those who study English, despite the fact that no other Indo-European language has been investigated so thoroughly, one may say with such excessive zeal.
Detailed comments on etymology also occur in our “thick” dictionaries, two of which are outstanding in this respect: The Century Dictionary and Wyld (1932). Charles P. G. Scott, the author of the etymologies in The Century Dictionary, summarized everything that had been known about the origin of English words and added the Germanic and the Indo-European perspective to his explanations. He relied on the third edition of Skeat (which was no more than a reprint of the first, 1882, edition; Skeat reflected the results of his later findings in several “concise” versions of his opus magnum and in the fourth edition) and the early fascicles of the OED. Wyld, an outstanding language historian, had many non-trivial ideas on the origin of English words, but he, too, left his mark only in a handful of entries. The dilemma that Scott and Wyld faced is familiar: both were imaginative scholars, but they dealt with thousands of words about which they had nothing new to say; hence mistakes, gaps in the presentation, and absurdities, as Weekley, himself an inhabitant of a glass house, called them.
The time has come to stop producing commercial
etymological dictionaries of English. Those who need some basic information
on the origin of English words will find it in any of the “shorter” Oxford
dictionaries, Webster, the Heritage, and The Random House Dictionary, to
mention a few. Specialists will
continue using the OED, Skeat,
Wyld, the dictionaries of other languages (to the extent that, while
examining cognates, they feature English vocabulary), and occasional
publications. The main difference between the fourth edition of Skeat and the
dictionaries of Sanskrit, Latin, etc., referred to in the opening paragraph
of this essay is obvious: those discuss the scholarly literature on every
word, whereas Skeat cited the opinions of his predecessors rarely, only when
he saw fit. He was interested in promoting what he took to be the best
solutions, rather than surveying the field. We do not know how closely he
followed the philological journals published abroad (his German and
Scandinavian colleagues constantly pointed to his lack of familiarity with
their work) and whether in his old age he was as avid a reader of linguistic
literature as in his youth. The editors of the OED made every effort to keep abreast of the times, but etymology
constituted a small (though important) part of their work.
English etymological dictionaries have not always been dogmatic. 17th and 18th century authors listed (and accepted or refuted) the ideas of their predecessors because what at that time passed for etymological research did not rely on strict procedures. Students of antiquities sought for look-alikes in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Old English, Irish, or Dutch, depending on their predilections, and derived English words from the words of those languages. Occasionally their derivations proved to be right, but in the absence of method everybody’s suggestion seemed to be worthy of at least some respect. A modern user of our oldest etymological dictionaries (published roughly until 1850) finds invaluable surveys of the oldest views and forms an idea of how knowledge developed. For a historian of science, the way to the truth is no less interesting than the truth itself. Then comparative linguistics came into its own, and sound laws were discovered. Guesswork gave way to the science of etymology. The limitations of this science became clear much later, but the core of comparative linguistics withstood all attacks, even though nowadays it is more customary to refer to sound correspondences rather than sound laws. Polemic continued to rage in journals, while dictionaries included what was certain and left out the controversial parts.
The pendulum swung in the opposite direction only in the
20th century. By that time it had become hard to find the relevant
literature. Even in
It is thus not fortuitous that the ODEE appeared only in 1965 and did not go beyond the partly
outdated information amassed by its model. While English etymological
lexicography remained dormant (popularization can be ignored), articles and
books on the origin of English words kept appearing in a steady stream.
Dictionary makers sometimes reproduced the latest proposals with undue
deference (a classic case is the treatment of boy in the post-OED
era: the word was said to be of French origin), but, as a rule, such
proposals did not make a stir, for authorities of Skeat’s and
About twenty years ago, I embarked on writing an
analytic etymological dictionary of English. At the moment, we do not have even
the smallest clearing house of suggestions on the origin of English words. I
will cite one example that deals with a relatively exotic borrowed word,
namely, osprey. Here is what the ODEE says: “…sea-eagle, fish-hawk XV
[that is, first recorded in the 15th century]; egret plume XIX.
–O[ld] F[rench] ospres,
repr[esenting]. obscurely L[atin] OSSI
Below I will give a brief account of what has been done toward the production of an analytic dictionary of English etymology. Over the years, I have been operating on a shoestring budget, but the money I have had allowed me to hire graduate and undergraduate assistants. Fortunately, many volunteers have offered their services. My team examined all the sets of all the philological journals in more than twenty languages, popular magazines like Notes and Queries, and endless rows of miscellaneous publications and Festschriften. The assistants were told to copy the articles and reviews that dealt with the origin of English words and their cognates. They read some works in English, German, and the continental Scandinavian languages, but I had no help for Icelandic, Faroese, Dutch, Frisian, Romance, Slavic, and Baltic and did all the screening in those languages myself. Bibliographies were of course useful, but, while looking through lists of titles, it is hard to judge whether an article contains any etymological information, for interesting ideas on the origin of English words turn up in works on Latin numismatics, Old Indian demonology, Armenian syntax, Slavic morphology, and so on. The reasons for that are obvious. Language history and the history of culture are inseparable from etymology. Also, numerous English words have cognates in other Indo-European languages (a study of German gleiten or of Swedish dverg is as valuable for the etymology of glide and dwarf as a study of those English words). Titles like “The Origin of the Verb glide” are rare, and there was no substitute for opening one book after another. At present, Part 1 of my database contains slightly over 18,500 titles. Every article (paper, review, report) has been marked for the words whose origins are discussed there. Part 2 is a word list: next to each word (there are over 14,000 of them) the page numbers referring to the titles in Part 1 appear.
As Corneille said: “The tragedy is ready; I must now only write the verses.” With such a database at my disposal, all that remains is to sit down and write an analytic dictionary of English etymology. However, there are at least two handicaps. The main of them has been mentioned above: every language contains too many words! For this reason, I have divided the presumably native vocabulary of English into several groups: words without established cognates outside English, words with one or more established cognates only within Germanic, words with cognates in Germanic and elsewhere in Indo-European, borrowings from the Romance languages, and borrowings from other languages. This classification often breaks down, for a word believed not to have cognates anywhere may be shown to have some, a presumably native word may turn out to be a borrowing, and so forth, but in principle, it serves me well. My immediate aim is to write entries on the most common words of the first group (between five and six hundred), these worried bones of etymology, as a reviewer of Skeat’s dictionary once called them. I emphasize the phrase the most common words (boy, girl, lad, lass, and their likes) because volatile slang, dialectal words, and the rare words that are featured in dictionaries can wait. Germanic words without established Indo-European cognates (such as dwarf, shilling, and wife) will be the next group to deal with.
A second handicap is that writing an entry is not a
mechanical process. I must first reread everything written in the articles
that have made their way into the database and are now located in my office,
look up the words under discussion in about two hundred dictionaries and
numerous books (they fill my carrel at the library), evaluate all the
proposals (there may be as many as 21 of them: this happened to yet; however, the usual number
fluctuates between three and six), defend the most reasonable one, advance my
own, or concede defeat (“the origin is still unknown”). I have been able to
offer many good solutions, but it would be rash to expect that I will break
the spell laid on every intractable word. No analytic dictionary has done so.
Emma Micawber, the wife of David Copperfield’s unforgettable friend, once
declared: “Talent Mr. Micawber has, money Mr. Micawber has not.” This is a
familiar problem. If I succeed in getting a renewable grant from NEH (the
National Endowment for the Humanities, http://neh.gov), I will hire
assistants and with a bit of luck complete my project. Or perhaps some reader
of this newsletter will realize what a wonderful enterprise my dictionary is
and give me several hundred thousand dollars (my project did not die years
ago only because of the interest in it by two philanthropists). By now I have
written more than fifty entries (they range from two to fifteen single-spaced
pages in two columns) and published most of them as articles. A volume of
those entries, thoroughly reworked for the dictionary, along with the
database, will be brought out by the
Heritage = The American Heritage Dictionary of the
English Language. William Morris, ed.
W. An Etymological Dictionary of the
Ernst. An Etymological Dictionary of
Modern English. 1921.
Wyld = The
Universal Dictionary of the English Language. Henry C. Wyld, ed.
The following sample entries from Anatoly Liberman’s new etymological English dictionary are available online:
K Dictionaries Ltd